Beyond The Break With Buzzy Kerbox
A true waterman possesses a unique, intuitive connection to the ocean, innately ebbing and flowing with nature’s tides and always showing great respect for its power. No matter how far a waterman may travel, they always find refuge in the nearest body of water. To be called a “great waterman” is an even more remarkable honor, and Burton "Buzzy" Kerbox has earned this title many times over. Known as one of the earliest sponsored professional surfers, paid to do what he loved the most, Buzzy has accomplished awe-inspiring feats both in and out of the water, from big wave surfing around the world to paddle boarding the English Channel with Laird Hamilton to modeling for Vogue to becoming the face of Ralph Lauren as the company rose to extreme popularity in the 80s.
Whether the Indiana-born, Hawaii-raised adventurer is traversing the world’s oceans or traveling the globe to work with some of the biggest fashion houses, Buzzy truly lives and breathes the Outerknown mentality of exploring beyond the furthest reaches to embrace what ignites his spirit most. So naturally, when it came time to shoot our Spring/Summer ’22 collections, we wanted someone that captivated this adventurous spirit we love so much–we knew we needed Buzzy! So in search of a certain warmth and unparalleled authenticity, we asked Buzzy and his son Kyler to join our ensemble on the North Shore this past November to shoot with the incredible Anne Menke.
A few months after the shoot, we had a chance to catch up with the surf legend to learn more about his lifelong commitment to aquatic pursuits, and the "modeling gigs" he picked up along the way!
“Back then it was just more artistic, you rode the wave how you wanted to paint that canvas.”
How did you first get into surfing?
We used to go to Florida for summer vacations and I saw a Beach Boys album cover with surfing on it, and I thought that was really cool. It just sort of planted a little seed in my brain. When we got back to Hawaii I took a surf lesson in Waikiki, and I just loved surfing–became hopelessly hooked on it! I then started competing in amateurs and worked my way through some pro events. Eventually took my first trip around the world just to surf in the contest where there were trials because at some of the Hawaii pro events there were no trials, so to keep going you had to travel so I traveled. At the end of the first year, they decided to make that the world tour, and I was number 10 in the world.
Wow, that's incredible to be at the forefront of it all. The surfing industry was literally evolving along with you.
Yes, exactly. You know it’s just what was going on. I never really stepped back to look at the big picture, it was just, “yeah I like surfing and to go to contests and the tour” and it just all unfolded. Perfect timing for me.
What were some of your favorite places to travel to while on tour?
Definitely, Australia was fun. Went to Brazil, Japan, Bali, East Coast–Florida, New Jersey, and South Africa. I wasn’t making much money the first couple of years, I barely survived. Sponsorships were almost non-existent so you pretty much fund yourself and try to get prize money, which was very minimal at the time. I worked at home, and I had a truck, and I did a U-Haul thing. I tried to make money quickly. Working a regular job, I’d never accumulate enough hours, so I did stuff like hauling and moving furniture and try to quickly make money so I could finance myself. There were no credit cards, it was the cash you had.
This may be hard to answer but, what do you love most about surfing, both personally and competitively?
I’ve always been competitive because I had older brothers, but I love the freedom of surfing and being out there on uncrowded days, getting rides, and just tapping into the energy of nature. It’s just something spiritual and exciting and sort of artistic in a way. You know things have changed. Back in our day, everybody had their own unique style and approach and now everyone’s a lot more similar. But just the freedom of surfing and being a competitive person and being able to compete at a sport you love, you know that was just ultimate. That was the perfect thing for me to do.
“I love the freedom of surfing and being out there on uncrowded days, getting rides and just tapping into the energy of nature. It’s just something spiritual and exciting and sort of artistic in a way."
How do you feel surfing has changed from when you were on the tour?
The surf industry is still strong as far as the brands and as far as the surfing and professional surfing–the talent pool of upcoming surfers is just amazing to me. Some of the companies find a kid that’s like 10 years old who wins an amateur event or something and they start grooming them. So by 14, the surfing that some of these kids are doing is mindboggling. They have the opportunity to have all the best and latest equipment and watch videos of everybody doing it. Back in my day, there were surf movies maybe a couple of times a year, so you had to watch and try to learn. There were no videos where you could really break down the surfing and moves. Back then it was just more artistic, you rode the wave how you wanted to paint that canvas and now everything is all so maneuver-based and the difficulty of each particular maneuver. Style doesn’t matter, back in our day it mattered. There are a lot of differences but it’s come a long way and the ability of surfing and the aerial maneuvering, it’s incredible what they’re doing today. We were doing what we could on the equipment that we had in the day.
You are also notorious for co-creating tow-in surfing with Laird Hamilton and a few other surfers. How did that come about?
It was the late ‘80s, I was doing a lot of windsurfing with Laird Hamilton, and my friend Darrick Doerner on the North Shore. At that point, I wasn't surfing competitively anymore. All the surf breaks get so crowded, it’s like ski resorts, all the main hills are really crowded. And by windsurfing, we were seeing waves on the outer reefs that nobody was tapping into. So, in the meantime, I had my Zodiac inflatable boat and we played around and towed in flat water and then one day it dawned on us, let’s try to use the boat to tow onto the waves out there because there are perfect waves just way out there. So we brought my Zodiac out from Kailua and launched it and started at Backyards and threw out the tow rope and started towing onto waves. Pretty soon we realized we could surf bigger and bigger waves and ride shorter and shorter boards on bigger and bigger waves. Then the wave runners came along so that was a natural progression from the Zodiac. Tow surfing was born and spread pretty much across the world.
When you decided to leave the pro surf world, what was your next move?
I left it the tour in ’83, and I had started modeling in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So I started to make some money modeling and I went you know what, I’m making more money modeling and I’m traveling with all the best surfers in the world and fighting with them in the waves that we get, I’d rather go where everybody isn’t. In South Africa, I got on a plane I flew to Paris by myself and went on a journey in France and I did all of Europe in two weeks just looking for the next thing for my life. I continued to model in the ’80s and then started windsurfing a lot and then the tow-in surfing. After tow-in surfing in the ‘90s, I had to have a job, I had kids, so I ran Buzzy Kerbox Surf School for about 20 years over on Maui.
How did you go from pro surfing to modeling?
I was actually in Australia, I was injured in the hospital. I wheeled over to the nurses’ station to borrow the phone to call my dad collect and told him I was in the hospital and that I was all right. He said this photographer Bruce Weber called and wants you to call him collect and wants you to go to New York for Vogue magazine. And I’m like, “did he call the right guy?” But I hung up the phone and asked the nurse if I could make one more call and she let me. I called Bruce Weber from Australia to New York, I didn’t know the time difference or the day but Bruce was in his apartment, answered, accepted the charges, and asked me if I wanted to come to New York to do a shoot. He told me the dates and I said, “well I can’t make it, I have a surf contest, but thanks anyway.” Then I went to the contest, and I bombed on the first round. I found a payphone and called him collect and he answered again. I said, “is it too late?” And he said, “no you got to hurry you can make it.” So, I went from Australia to New York to do that first shoot out in Long Island for Vogue. When that came out Bruce Weber got the campaign for Polo, and he showed Ralph (Lauren) the shots and I just happened to be wearing Polo clothes in the Vogue shoot and Ralph thought I looked good for them. They flew me to New York, and I walked into Ralph’s office, and I’ve been working for him ever since.
So you still model for Ralph Lauren? That’s amazing!
Yeah, the last campaign I did was in 2019 and it was with all of my boys. The campaign was called, “Family Is Who You Love” and so it was a video and still campaign that they used globally.
Did you score any other big modeling gigs outside of Polo?
After the Vogue shoot, Bruce sent me around New York with some Xeroxed copies of the pictures that he had taken. I tried to sign with an agency but the fact that I lived in Hawaii they said: “if you move to New York let us know but this is where the work is.” And I didn’t want to live in New York and be a model. But once I got the Polo campaign then I got agents and things started going. When I was appearing in those ads then companies would hire me. So, I did a lot of other magazines, editorials, New York Times, all kinds of GQ and different magazines and products. In ’82 Polo signed me to an exclusive contract so I couldn’t do anything competing with them. I could do you know like beer or other things but nothing fashion-oriented.
Were you still surfing for fun on the side or had you quit surfing altogether?
Actually, while I was on tour, I was a contract model also. We did one of their (Ralph Lauren’s) most iconic campaigns the safari campaign where I had a lion, there was a zebra, it was an elaborate set. It was actually in Hawaii, and I went straight from that shoot back to the North Shore and made the finals for the Pipeline Masters.
You mentioned windsurfing but what else piqued your interest in the water?
I started doing paddle boarding as fitness. I used to do paddleboard races to stay in shape for surfing. And then when stand-up came along I started doing that so I did a lot of different races. It was fun. It gives you the motivation to get out there and work hard and keep in shape. It’s easy just to lounge around and not but by being out here and staying in shape when the surf was good or whatever I was in better shape and a better paddler. I enjoyed the racing. With surfing the judging was always so subjective, but paddle racing is nice, you cross the finish line and that’s your place. Laird and I did the English Channel followed two weeks later by Corsica to Elbe in the Mediterranean. I’ve competed in the Molokai Channel Race from Molokai to Oahu, it’s 32 miles, I’ve been in that 14 times with sometimes solo sometimes with a partner. As I got older, I made a goal for myself to do the race solo at 60. So when I turned 60 years old I entered the Stand Up Unlimited and got 2nd place in my age division. My thing was, I wanted to give the message to people to get off the couch and stay in the game and get out there and do stuff. I felt like I wanted to finish for more than just myself. So that kept me motivated through the pain to the finish line. When your mind is telling your body you can’t go any farther, it’s amazing to push it farther and realize you can. Once you’ve done something like that, everything else seems easy.
And your book, Making Waves, which was released in 2019 chronicles all of these wild stories?
I was always into cameras, and I loved photography from an early age. I always took pictures of everything. Back then no one had cameras or cell phone cameras. I had a camera and I shot everything. I shot behind the scenes, not just the surfing but also the behind the scenes with like the judges, the competitor’s tent and whatnot. My dad kept all of my press clippings and magazines which I never would have done. So, when I went to do my book, I had all of that to work with. I took a writing class when I was in college and they said to keep a journal. So I kept a journal for the class but then I kept the journal for six to seven years for basically the hay day of my life. I wrote everything down so I have all of the journals. So, for my book, I could accurately go back to see what I was thinking when things were going down. It was always something I wanted to do. I feel like I had a good story to share with people to hopefully inspire them and motivate them and it came together.
You’ve shared some truly amazing accomplishments, but what are you most proud of?
Personally, raising three kids has been my greatest achievement because of my lifestyle I was able to spend a lot of time with the kids and that's the most special thing. Professionally, I think when my surfing career and winning events at the time that was the highlight of my professional career.
Well, we loved getting to work with you for our latest Spring/Summer ’22 shoot. What are some of your favorite pieces from the collection so far?
I have a sweatshirt made of terry cloth (the Hightide) and shorts made of the same fabric. I’m currently snowboarding so I get back to the house and throw them on and just lounge around. My favorite piece is the (Apex Trunks by Kelly Slater) boardshorts though. Actually, another company had given me a pair of the (Apex) boardshorts last year when I was on my book tour and I just love them. They’re so technical. They’re like the ultimate, best surf shorts I’ve ever gotten. So to get a chance to work with Outerknown and they gave me even more gear and I was just thrilled. I love to work with companies that have great products.
When you’re not modeling or traveling the globe, where might someone find you?
I’m back living on the North Shore. Still surfing and foiling, I got a wing foil. I take my son, Kyler who’s also in the catalog, I take him tow surfing a lot. So there’s nothing more fun than surfing and tow surfing with your kids. So that’s what I get to do!